I never did have a particularly good sense of timing.
This shortcoming was demonstrated again, one day last week, as I accomplished some first-hand reporting on the District of Columbia's financial situation. But it was not a voluntary assignment.
The lesson began at 11:41 a.m., when the D.C. police found my car near the corner of 17th and Q streets NW. At least part of the car was parked legally but the illegal portion was ticketed with a $10 fine for being outside a white street line. And to the whole car was attached an orange sticker that said, "TOW."
About 12:03 p.m., the car was hauled away. Five minutes later, I arrived at the scene. It didn't take long to add up the circumstances of a missing car, the city's budget crunch and streets literally crawling with tow trucks. Along with hundreds of other persons, I was about to become indoctrinated in Mayor Marion Barry's project PEP -- for parking enforcement program.
It could have been worse. Take the painter who was inside at work in the Adams Morgan area on a hot morning. When lunchtime came, he was ready for a break. Inside his truck was a cooler filled with drinks and a full lunch. But by the time he discovered that the truck was missing, the D.C. traffic people had it parked next to the Potomac River in Georgetown. He got to the cooler about 4:30 p.m. and lost an afternoon of work.
Rather than inconvenience -- and knowledge that a $50 towing fee would have to be paid before I could even go and get my car -- my main problem was that a folder containing all the notes for today's Washington Business column was in the back seat. That's the main reason I spent an entire afternoon seeking to recover the car. In the end, however, I decided to postpone that column for another week.
For a while, at least, it is clear that one method of raising revenues for the District government will be much more strict enforcement of parking rules. tThe newest phase of this crackdown actually started early in 1979, when the average number of daily towaways in the downtown area jumped into the hundreds from 15 or 20. There were a number of goals, including clearing the streets safety opening of more short-term parking spaces, encouraging subway use and increasing city revenues.
Less than four months later, however, howls of protest by business people and others forced D.C. transportation officials to cut back on the tough program. "We were probably towing more cars than we needed to," said one government official. A new policy was declared: Cars parked in loading zones or too close to intersections no longer would be towed, but would get tickets.
In 1980, however, the city's potential deficit has become a serious problem, and a new policy obviously is being enforced. Hundreds of cars were being towed last week to three impoundment lots -- in Georgetown, at Brentwood Road and W Street NE and at 3d Street NW between E and F streets. In addition minimum fines for parking violations in the city were doubled in April to $10, to bring in an additinal $2.4 million annually.
The city is out to make good on its promise to increase traffic enforcement revenues by $12 million or more a year, a goal that was not met in 1979 because of several delays.
Today, the PEP program is armed with sophisticated computer technology, so that a telephone call (the number is 727-5000) less than 30 minutes after towing will provide all-important information on a delinquent car, including the impoundment lot where it was sent and any unpaid parking tickets that also must be paid before you can get your car.
More importantly, all of the government workers encountered in my car saga were thoroughly professional and pleasant. The city also provides free van transportation to the impoundment sites from 601 Indiana Ave. NW, where the towing fine and any traffic tickets must first be paid. There's a handsome brochure on PEP, describing illegal parking problems and towing procedures as well as the city's innovative. Bureau of Traffic Adjudication. This office, also at the Indiana Avenue location, is part of the D.C. Department of Transportation and provides and administrative hearings on traffic citations.
Altogether, it is an impressive new program introduced in the District, and it has been established as a competent government operation in less than two years -- even though some parkers still can get snared by computer or human error.
It is a common error by many persons in the Washington business community -- indeed among many area residents -- to think that the D.C. government's bureaucracy is somehow more of a problem to confront than that of other governments. Just try to transfer the license of a car into Maryland, if you want to experience a real nightmare of government red tape, long lines, inspections, temporary tags that don't last long enough to get repairs done, etc.
What is happening in the District is that departments and agencies are being modernized and made more professional, one by one. The city government has a bad name today and that partially reflects a revenue shortfall that can properly be blamed on decisions of the U.S. Congress in previous years, such as an extra-rich unemployment compensation program (which drove business away).
To date, Congress also has blocked city government plans to finance a city economic development program that is designed to retain current jobs and attract new business and revenues. The experience with a new traffic enforcement program suggests that once the city can start competing effectively with suburban counties for new businesses (and this will be done, with or without the blessing of Congress), it won't take long for the D.C. government to start having a successful impact.